Interview – Michael Edwards

Michael Edwards took on the post of Director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Unit earlier this year. Caroline Hartnell talked to him about what he hopes to achieve at Ford, how this relates to the conclusions he draws in his book Future Positive, and more generally how he sees civil society developing in the 21st century. 

What attracted you to working at the Ford Foundation?

One of the reasons why I went to Ford was that I saw them as one of the best vehicles for promoting progressive social change. They have great advantages as a donor. They are financially secure, so they can make long-term commitments. And because they don’t continually have to look over their shoulder, they have more confidence to do the difficult things, to support the innovative, risky things. Ford – and other foundations – are ideally placed to promote the changes we are looking for.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that they themselves have no need of reform. Foundations aren’t static: they are constantly looking at themselves. How can they improve? How can they make a bigger impact on social change? Are they sufficiently accountable? These are certainly live debates at Ford. One of my reasons for going to Ford was not just to help the Governance and Civil Society Unit to be the best it can be, but to try to play a positive role in helping the Foundation as a whole to be the best it can be.

How do you think Ford needs to change to become ‘the best it can be’?

I’d like to see us do more to track the impact of the work we support on social change. Strengthening our learning is part of this. Here we are interacting on a daily basis with a fantastic array of social change organizations and individuals fizzing away with innovation, constantly reflecting on their work, doing evaluations and so on, but we probably don’t make enough of this tremendous gold mine of information. If you unlocked the vaults of what the Ford Foundation has worked with over the last 50 years or so, you would have an incredibly rich body of information about what works and what doesn’t in social change. The world needs that sort of information, so we need to work harder to process it and make it available. That is the way the Foundation is heading under Susan [Berresford]. A lot more investment is being made in different forms of learning. In ten years’ time I think you will see a pretty different Ford Foundation in that sense.

Is this learning to do with using the information you have already got or looking for information in different ways?

It’s a mixture of both. We have a superb array of information ourselves, but there are certain sorts of information we need more of. I’d like to sponsor more long-term, impact-related research, to test some of our assumptions about what works on the ground (something that’s been tried elsewhere in the Foundation, for example in the education field). This is costly and difficult, but crucial to any long-term learning agenda. We do an awful lot of fairly rough and ready learning, if I can put it that way, but there are a few missing pieces in the jigsaw that need to be put in place.

Are there other ways in which the Foundation needs to change?

We need to think more critically about the work we do and how we can do it in a way that brings people together around particular problems and tasks.  The Foundation is structured into three large thematic programmes, each of which addresses a broad array of issues. Yet tackling certain problems – like increasing the participation of the disenfranchised in an era of globalization – requires transcending the organizational structure by combining the efforts of staff working on strengthening civil society, for example, with those promoting economic development. The really big problems facing the world today demand that the Foundation marshals all of its resources in an integrated fashion.

Another area is accountability. At the moment the Foundation is strongly accountable in certain directions – to its Board of Trustees, to its financial regulators, and to Congress in terms of general oversight of the role of foundations. I think we should be doing more to get our grantees’ views – and the views of independent scholars and activists – on how we are doing. That would be an important new source of ideas and information. In my own area of responsibility – governance and civil society – I’ve  begun to explore whether something akin to a social audit might not be feasible.

How can you get over the problem of making grantees feel secure enough to say critical things about a donor who is supporting them?

There are ways of preserving confidentiality, for example hiring an independent organization to carry out the social audit for you. What is fed back to the Foundation is not ‘Mr or Ms X said this’ but ‘this is the objectively verified view of grantees’. There are ways of getting the kind of information we need without exposing individuals to the difficulties you are talking about. But it’s obviously an issue. However good we are in terms of putting people at ease and not surrounding them with all sorts of conditions, there is always the possibility that your relationship with foundations might be eroded if you say critical things.

How much of a debate is there to be had within Ford about the need for change?

It’s pretty much an open door. People I talk to in the Foundation are very supportive of these agendas generally. But they’re busy, there’s only a certain amount of time in the day, and any change has to be properly debated and rooted in what has already been tried to ensure that we are not ‘reinventing the wheel’. Moving from commitment in principle to realization in practice takes time and effort. It’s a long-term agenda.

I’m wondering what implications some of the messages in Future Positive might have for the Ford Foundation and other foundations – for example the need to give grants over longer periods?

I’d say we already do pretty well in those terms, since continuity is one of the key principles of Ford Foundation funding. Look to the long term, stay with people as they evolve, make progress, and make mistakes. Above all, try and understand the detailed realities that they live, and adapt your support to fit them. For me the most important principle for any donor is to understand what is going on in a local situation and to find ways to support what people are doing over the long periods of time that are necessary if efforts at social change are to have a chance to mature.

Another clear message of Future Positive is that if donors want to support institutional development effectively they must work together. Does that have implications for Ford?

Foundations already work together in some key areas. The new Higher Education Initiative in Africa is a good example, where a number of leading American foundations are funding jointly, and I think that is a trend for the future. It’s more difficult where organizations try to partner with very different sorts of donor, for example a foundation with the World Bank, or an international NGO with UNDP, because their different organizational characteristics and values and agendas come into play. One might launch out on a cooperative venture with the best of intentions, but it’s sometimes quite difficult in practice to make it work, just because these are very different animals. We certainly don’t want cooperation for cooperation’s sake, but I do think that coordinated funding is the way donors will be moving over the next 15 or 20 years, despite the difficulties that will arise along the way.

What about companies? Do you see much cooperation with the corporate sector?

I do, but not so much on the funding side. Ford’s agenda with the corporate sector is much more to do with promoting the positive value of corporate activity in poverty reduction, asset-building and so on, and in the global movement for social responsibility, where we already support a lot of work. This does sometimes translate into funding for NGOs – for example in Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa and the US. So Ford already funds quite a lot of work that involves engaging with corporations and encouraging them to take on these things.

Still looking at donor cooperation, what do you think of the World Bank’s Comprehensive Development Framework?

The Comprehensive Development Framework is definitely heading in the right direction, in the sense that it is pressing all the right buttons and saying all the right things about the need for donors to come together at the national level and support a process of consensus-building among government, business and civil society about national development priorities, and to put their weight behind those priorities through joint funding. Whether the CDF as it is written is the best way to go about this task, I don’t know, and I am certain we will see a lot more iteration of that idea over the next few years.

There are many other ideas similar to the CDF. The United Nations Development Assistance Framework is one. What’s important to me – because I think we will see a lot more of these experiments – are the principles that underlie them, not the actual form they are given in different contexts. What pleases me is that this idea, which is a fairly radical change in the way the international system works, is pretty well accepted at the political level. We’ve yet to see it put into practice in more than a very small number of countries, but we shouldn’t underestimate the progress that’s been made over the last couple of years in getting donors to look self-critically at themselves and take on a new direction for the future. I think that over the next 10 or 20 years you’ll see this sort of model become the industry standard for the foreign aid business.

Finally, some wider questions. You are obviously a visionary person. How do you see civil society developing in this century, and what role do you see donors playing? What changes are you hoping to see?

There has never been a more exciting time than now to be part of civil society, to be a leader of an NGO, to participate in these debates. I do think this is a historic moment when in a real sense our time has come. Having spent many years in the background we are now moving to centre stage. That of course brings responsibilities as well as rewards, and we need to be conscious of that. But there is huge potential for civil society organizations to claim a much more central place on the world stage in the next 50 years.

I think the Ford Foundation and other like-minded bodies are absolutely crucial in helping them to fulfil that vision. Because of the quality of the money we have, and the particular characteristics of our sort of organization, we can search out and support innovative, risk-taking activity that probably won’t be supported by other donors. So that puts a special responsibility on us, the Ford Foundation, to make sure we are doing our job as well we possibly can.

I think Ford itself is set on an exciting path. It is becoming much more of a global organization. It is pulling in people of many different nationalities, cultures and viewpoints, which will enrich it greatly. It is taking much more seriously the issues of learning, accountability, impact and coordination that will enable it to be an even more effective grantmaker in the future. It’s a very exciting time to be part of civil society more broadly, and certainly a very exciting time to be part of the Ford Foundation.

Would you describe yourself as an optimist? So many people are full of doom and gloom about the world and the environment and using up all our resources and so on.

Yes, guilty as charged! I am an incurable optimist. I do believe deep in my heart that one day the world will be ruled by truth, beauty and justice – probably not in my lifetime or yours, but in some lifetimes to come. I suppose the key thing for any agent of social change is not to worry too much about the timescale, because then we get frustrated and depressed and we become less effective in our work. We are really very tiny cogs in a huge wheel that is moving slowly forward, backward and forward again, and we need to do our piece of this task as well as we can. But the task itself is so much bigger than any of us that we have to have a sense of humility. My experience is that once one has that sense of humility, more things become possible. I have no doubt that the world will be organized according to a different set of principles and values in the future. Quite when, I have absolutely no idea, but I don’t spend too much time worrying about it because there’s a job to be done tomorrow.

Michael Edwards is Director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Unit in New York. He was previously Senior Civil Society Specialist at the World Bank and Head of Research for Save the Children and has written widely on international cooperation, development, NGOs and civil society. His most recent book is Future Positive: International co-operation in the 21st century, published by Earthscan in the UK and Stylus in the US.

Future Positive is now available in paperback. To order, visit the Future Positive website at


The Ford Foundation
The Ford Foundation, established in 1936, is a private, non-profit institution that serves as a resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide. Its goals are to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. A national and international philanthropy with assets of $11.8 billion at the end of 1999, the Foundation has granted more then $9 billion to some 9,000 institutions and 100,000 individuals worldwide. The Foundation has three major programme areas: Peace and Social Justice, Asset Building and Community Development, and Education, Media, Arts and Culture. The Governance and Civil Society Unit is one of two units in the Peace and Social Justice Program.

For further information, visit the Ford Foundation website at

Michael Edwards challenges governments and NGOs to put their house in order

Caroline Hartnell

‘The pampered parasites of the new world order are not the participants but the protesters,’ said the UK Daily Telegraph newspaper after the Prague/IMF meetings. In the wake of Seattle and now Prague, NGOs are both more visible and more open to attack than ever before. It is in this context that Michael Edwards’ new pamphlet, NGO Rights and Responsibilities: A new deal for global governance, throws down the gauntlet to both governments and the international NGO community: in order to protect the gains that NGOs have made, it is time to ‘put our house in order’.

Global governance, he writes, ‘is likely to consist, not of a single framework of international law applied through national state authorities, but of a patchwork quilt of agreements negotiated between governments, corporations and citizens’ groups at different levels of the world system’ (p13). But without clear ground rules, these engagements could become a free for all, and the backlash this may cause against NGO involvement could turn back the tide of global citizen action. Edwards’ proposed ‘new deal for global governance’ gives citizens’ groups the right to a louder voice in return for a stronger commitment to their responsibilities.

Edwards’ challenge focuses on three key issues: accountability, accuracy and legitimacy:
Accountability  How are northern NGOs accountable to their southern constituencies? Is, for example, a protest against trade talks beneficial to developing countries? And, if not, how are NGOs accountable for any damage they may do?
Accuracy  Blanket opposition – to globalization, capitalism, free trade, the World Bank, the IMF – is too simplistic. In fact it tends to meet the far-right protectionist, nationalistic agenda halfway. NGOs must be better researched and better informed if they are to retain credibility.
Legitimacy. What right do NGOs have to speak for the interests of the poor? In what way do NGOs disrupting a meeting represent those who are excluded from the debate?  And how can the enormous diversity of the NGO community be channelled into global structures in a democratic way?

It is too soon to set out a detailed blueprint for action, but Edwards does make three broad recommendations:

A structured voice for NGOs in global governance, but not a formal vote (since civil societies lack satisfactory mechanisms for electing representatives).
Systems of NGO self-regulation around particular global regimes or institutions, with criteria for assessing accountability, accuracy and legitimacy, and some ultimate arbitration mechanism (like an ombudsman) in the United Nations. Something of this sort already operates for some NGO bodies in the UN.
A level playing field to ensure all civil society groups can be fairly represented.

The debate ahead

Questions raised at the launch of the pamphlet in London in September gave some pointers to the intensity and richness of the debate within the NGO community that is likely to be sparked off by Edwards’ challenge. Why single out NGOs when everyone else is doing worse? Won’t self-regulation be too intrusive and demanding? Isn’t public education to encourage people to keep an eye on NGOs a better alternative? Or a market mechanism, with the public refusing to support ‘bad’ NGOs? Is there a danger that getting to the table will become an end in itself, and that once there, NGOs will cease to relate to their grassroots constituencies? Who will monitor the monitors? How will we go about establishing criteria for factors like representativeness and legitimacy which go way beyond the mandate of, for example, the UK Charity Commission or the new Philippine NGO self-certification body, which focus solely on more formal aspects of NGO management such as financial accountability and reporting?

Edwards gave some answers to these questions: regardless of the failings of others, NGOs have a moral responsibility to do the best they can because they are driven by values and principles, not the pursuit of power or profit. It is also a tactical mistake to be seen to be ignoring our shortcomings. Yes, there is a danger that acquiring a place at the global table will become an end in itself – ‘It’s quite heady to enter the corridors of power.’ But the pamphlet recommends that ‘ongoing self-policing of the extent to which a group does maintain its ties with some sort of constituency and doesn’t float off into the clouds’ should itself be a criterion for self-regulation. The NGO Steering Committee on the Commission on Sustainable Development has a year-on-year process of accreditation and monitoring, and there are regular intervals at which decisions to censure or expel members can be taken.

No, we haven’t got any template for issues like representativeness and legitimacy. ‘This is new, difficult and sensitive ground. We will need to go quite slowly in exploring this. We will need to devise questions to tease out answers to these very difficult areas. We will have to experiment.’
But he also insisted that this debate is only beginning. Mechanisms for NGO involvement and self-regulation may be different for different global regimes and institutions. ‘Let’s have a thousand flowers blooming and see what works best.’ At this stage the real need is to put the issue on the policy agenda.

To order the pamphlet, please contact Central Books.
Tel +44 20 8986 5488
Fax +44 20 8833 5821
Price £9.95 plus £1 p+p

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